Ramon Llamas TSW Health team

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Ramon Llamas wanted to expand his network last Fall and learn more about the healthcare and nonprofit innovation happening in communities across the Southeast.

So he made the trek from his home in Washington D.C. to Durham, North Carolina to attend a Startup Weekend focused on health innovation. And the rest is history.

Llamas, a business development consultant, public health advocate and former Health and Human Services worker, has since moved to Durham and is building his own startup, a personalized recipe app called Hungr for people living with chronic diseases. The Filipino American has also latched on to the city's inclusion initiative, helping to organize the first Startup Weekend (in the Triangle and perhaps globally) that makes a dedicated effort to include diverse populations. Called Trailblazers Startup Weekend, it's happening June 12-14 in downtown Durham.

It was the city's low cost of living—making risk more palpable—along with its collaborative spirit, openness and pay-it-forward mentality that drew Llamas to Durham. The Startup Weekend introduced him to the people and resources now helping him build a business (though not his TSW: Health one; that team is pictured with Llamas, second from left, above) and fueled his new "addiction" to the startup environment. It also opened his eyes to career options not typically promoted in his culture—it made him want to give others that same experience.

Hence Trailblazers. 

In most ways, Trailblazers looks like any other Startup Weekend. 100 or so participants show up to American Underground @Main on Friday night and hear a keynote speaker. Many will give one-minute pitches to their peers in hopes of putting a team together to develop a prototype or business plan during the weekend. They work all day Saturday and Sunday, with short interruptions for coaching sessions and meetings with mentors and then conclude Sunday with another speaker and presentations of their projects from the weekend to a panel of judges. The winner typically walks away with a co-working office for a few months and other resources from the startup community. (Update: Sponsor AT&T is challenging participants to build mobile products for people with disabilities and will award $3K, and a chance to compete for $100K in New York later this year, to the winning team). 

The goal is not necessarily to build the next fast-growth startup (though one, an EdTech startup called Trinket is still around and thriving), but to give participants the startup experience for the weekend.

This event, however, has differences from the ground up. It has an organizing team made up of people like Llamas who've never planned a Startup Weekend—there's American Underground's Entrepreneur-in-Residence Talib Graves-Mann, chief strategist Adam Klein and community partnerships director Jesica Averhart, marketing consultant Frank Pollock, behavioral health consultant, talk show host and career coach Glenda Clare, MBA student and entrepreneur Austin Henley and Swaggr founder Corey Harris. They each have access to populations not typically aware of or invited to such events. And so their first invites were to entrepreneurially-minded people within those groups. 

According to Llamas, the goal was to target "everybody who is 'under-represented', to get them to see that entrepreneurship is daunting, but there are resources to help you develop your ideas." But the event is open to all (and there are still spots available).

Speakers also represent diverse backgrounds and experiences—keynoting is Bryan Young, a senior strategy consultant at Marketo and former Black Enterprise Innovator of the Year. Judges include former IBM marketer and motivational speaker Sharon Hill, technology commercialization consultant Dragana Mendel and John Austin, director of Groundwork Labs. 10 mentors and coaches come from a variety of industries, leadership roles and ethnic backgrounds.

Startup Weekends remain a critical tool for promoting entrepreneurship in this region. They're successful in generating new business ideas, in encouraging and networking aspiring entrepreneurs, and in some cases, recruiting talented and passionate people like Llamas to the region and to entrepreneurship. The Trailblazers team hopes this event meets another goal too—to include everyone in the excitement, the learning and the process of starting a company. 

Promoting diversity is a tricky thing. Most people wish for it to be entwined in the fabric of an organization or company. But that can only begin with a concerted effort.